PORTLAND — The City Council granted a Congress Street music venue a license for late-night entertainment Monday, but the night club’s request has sparked a review of city policy expected to play out in council and committee meetings for several weeks.
Port City Music Hall applied for a license for after-hours entertainment with dancing in February. The license is not unprecedented; three other Portland businesses already had them, including the Styxx night club, Platinum Plus, and 51 Wharf.
But police initially recommended that the City Council deny Port City’s request, causing the council to delay a vote originally scheduled for March 5 to allow the venue operators to discuss the issue with the Police Department.
At Monday’s meeting, police dropped their opposition to the license request after discussing Port City’s safety plan with club management. They said they are satisfied the plan will effectively mitigate threats to public safety.
Police were initially concerned about the city granting new late-night entertainment licenses in general, not specifically to Port City, which has generated only a small number of police service calls since opening three years ago, police said.
But despite their tacit support for Port City’s license request in the end, they still oppose indiscriminate after-hours licensing.
The bigger issue is public safety, said Cmdr. Vern Malloch, who was named assistant police chief on Monday. Police typically see a drop in calls between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. and reduce staff accordingly. But after-hours events last until 3 a.m., and can be a draw for rowdy crowds, challenging stripped-down night-shift crews.
Malloch cited the Industry, Zoots, and Metropolis night clubs, all closed for years, as examples of late-night venues that caused problems for police.
“What tends to happen at those establishments is they become magnets for people who are leaving another club, but aren’t ready to go home yet,” Malloch said. Intoxicated people gathered outside late-night entertainment venues can be dangerous to others.
“We see fights. We see drinking,” Malloch said.
None of the the current license holders have presented such problems, Malloch said, in part because they are either away from the downtown bar area, as is the case with Platinum Plus, or because like Styxx, they use the license infrequently and only for ticketed, special events.
Even with a motion to postpone the vote on Port City’s application on the table at the March 5 meeting, councilors entered a long conversation on the subject and struggled to separate Port City’s application from the larger policy issue.
Most councilors supported the delayed vote to allow Port City to meet with police, but Councilor David Marshall, a strong supporter of the city’s creative economy, protested.
The council had always allowed late-night entertainment licenses, Marshall said. Nothing has changed, and this sort of delay was unusual without current proof from the police that a license holder or the applicant presented a public safety risk, he said.
In between council meetings, the Public Safety, Health, and Human Services Committee took up the conversation at its March 15 meeting, debating changes to the after-hours license terms to recommend to the full council.
At that meeting, Malloch proposed three changes: that applicants must meet with police to discuss safety plans and proposed uses, that license holders be limited to two late-night events a month, and that venues be required to notify the city clerk’s office at least one week prior to an after-hours event.
Marshall again opposed the measures. “We don’t have a problem here, we have the fear of a problem here,” he said.
Port City manager Rob Evon and the owners of Styxx also appeared at the meeting to voice their discontent with the proposed changes. Evon said that while public safety is important and Port City plans to be cautious when using its after-hours license, he thinks “it is completely possible to run these types of events in a manner that treats the community with respect.”
“Late-night entertainment is important to the city of Portland to put us on the map as a live music destination,” Evon said.
But Bull Feeney’s owner Doug Fuss also spoke, warning that Wharf Street is still a gathering place for boisterous drunks when bars close at 1 a.m. Portland Downtown District President Jan Beitzer also supported the police amendments.
“Conceptually, (that this) wouldn’t be something that someone would do every weekend is important,” Beitzer said, arguing that Congress Street is more residential than it used to be.
The committee voted 3-1 to recommend the proposed amendment to the full council, but specified that any venue holding or in the process of applying for an after-hours entertainment license as of March 15 would not be subject to the new regulations.
Evon was thankful that his club will be grandfathered if the amendments are approved by the council.
“I don’t know what the fear is. We’ve done 550 to 600 concerts in three years and we’ve had maybe a handful of police calls each year,” he said. “Personally, I’m opposed to telling adults what they can and can’t do.”
The council will likely not vote on the amendments until its May 7 meeting, Public Safety committee member Ed Suslovic said.